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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

Simon Milton and Véronique Souberbielle, Sorbet Sorbet:  libretto,  Bernard Turle, Soloists and chorus of Weekend Musical Festival, Midsummer Opera Orchestra, David Roblou conductor, world premiere; Carnoules, France. 25.7.2007 (MM)


Julia Catalani as The Mother: photo by Geneviève Codou-David

Summertime in the South of France provides a superabundance of performing arts.  Luckily the seemingly unlimited means of the Aix, Avignon, Montpellier and Orange festivals usually fund good performances, sometimes even great performances on standards comparable to Europe's other important festivals.  But there are lots more festivals hereabouts, small village festivals, and some even dare artistic aspirations comparable to those of the major festivals.

The Weekend Musical in Carnoules, a village in the central Var, is such a festival.  Though working on a production standard that is decidedly local it is at the same time uncompromising in its aspiration to create high art.  Though content in the past with versions of pieces like Carmen, Werther and even Milhaud's Trois Opéras Minutes, this summer Weekend Musical took on the daredevil task of making a new opera, a sprawling comedy called Sorbet Sorbet.

Sorbet Sorbet is a collaboration between librettist Bernard Turle and two composers, Véronique Souberbielle and Simon Milton, she French and he British.  The result was complex theater of spoken word (French) that flowed into chant, broke into chanson, gave way to dance and converged in complex musical scenes of aria and ensemble.  The focus seldom faltered at its July 25 world premiere, though the oblique storytelling left much of the audience often wondering what in fact was happening.

Global warming makes topics like "ice" topical indeed and global markets have made it likely that your sorbet may now be made in China.  Thus Bernard Turle fittingly made his story about an ice cream factory caught in transition, not only in its marketplace but also concerning the personalities caught in these larger world transitions.  The story, set in the 1970's, is comic, developing the tensions between the generations of the factory's founding family, and the tensions that overwhelm their inner lives as each transcends an age of life.  Of course these comic forces are not always funny, but they are always classically comic : we see yet again that these are the forces that renew the world.

Big yes, too big maybe for the Salle Communale in Carnoules, that was mostly a stage set and an orchestra, the overflow audience seeming almost incidental.  A large cast, the father and mother, a son and a two daughters, a maid and a foreman, an ice-skating teacher, plus the catalyst, the "green" boyfriend who arrives on a vintage motor scooter - all principal roles.  Not to mention the 20 or so workers in the ice cream factory who chanted and sang and danced throughout the evening.

As the story deftly interlaced the bizarre, the absurd and the weird into the real, the music paced itself, balancing the certainty of gospel style harmonic progressions with the confident plaints of the modern French ballades, juxtaposing the enervating intervals of Richard Strauss quotations with the acoustical play of harmonics, and in the larger moments unleashing orchestral structures that created the warm, cold, comic, tragic, ironic moods that underpinned the story.  Though two compositional styles were perceptible they were compatible, and seamlessly integrated.  A printed program that credited the specific contributions of each composer would have been helpful however.

There were some quite effective performances, among them the Mother, a Marschallin figure portrayed by soprano Julia Catalani who pleads to preserve her beauty cryogenically (by freezing).  Bernard Turle himself vividly spoke the few words of the Father that exacerbate both the incipient family and business confrontations. The rebel daughter
Marie-Jo played by mezzo-soprano Danielle Sales, was at first convincingly angry and then moving as she gave birth and  her lover Kamel was played by tenor John Upperton who brought some high level singing to the production.

High art too was the ice-skating dance scene that opened the second act, walking a fine line between caricature, comedy and even ballet as performed by Cécile the ice-skating daughter sung by composer Véronique Souberbielle herself and an unidentified chorister, both of them non dancers though Ms. Souberbielle is perhaps a better dancer than singer.  Perhaps it was she as composer who provided the brilliantly ironic and highly refined music for this mesmerizing scene.

The chorus, comprised of local townspeople who ably negotiated demanding rhythms and never let down a formidable dramatic concentration, was one of the evening's supreme pleasures.

The nine players of the orchestra, that of London's Midsummer Opera, here specifically a string quartet, plus clarinet (played by composer Simon Milton), flute, bassoon and percussion was led from the piano by its conductor/director David Roblou.  This small group brought robust presence to the Milton/Souberbielle score particularly colored from time to time by clarinet and bassoon solos and the wood block punctuation of the percussion.

The cast also included Tania Zolty who made the fur hat coiffed ice-skating teacher Madame Kezeeff seem exotic.  Soprano Cécile Piris exuded a sweetness as the maid who finally ensnared the recalcitrant family scion Hughes, sung by baritone Trevor Alexander.  Bass Jean-Philippe Doubrere uttering some strikingly low tones in the final tableau was the wily factory foreman Blandenyck.  The formidable job of musical preparation of the singers was not identified, though one assumes it should be credited to M. Roblou.

Staged by Bernard Turle who also assembled an impressive array of costumes and props, and effectively lighted by
Franck Jouanny, this production had all the polish one expects from the big festivals, and none of the pretension.  Like all new works, this one too has need of editing as the evening could have ended a bit before it finally did.


Michael Milenski

 Midsummer Opera's web site is Here

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